Tag Archives: research tips

Squeeze the Source: In Your Face

Warning: contains super-secret library hacks, severed heads, and a horse being killed. Some (illustrated) blood is involved.

Last time, on Squeeze the Source, we covered the basics. This time, we’re going to try a slightly different approach. I’ll tell you literally everything I can think of to fill in the gaps and context of the following images, and your job is to be the very best inquisitive four year old you can be and pick up on one single detail that’s literally right in front of your face. Heh. Remember when I told you last time to not take anything for granted, and throw away all your preconceptions so they don’t get in the way of the obvious? Well there’s no better time than now!

This is a detail of a much longer scroll – Moko Shurai Ekotoba – that was commissioned by a warrior named Takezaki Suenaga. None of these people would have called themselves “samurai” since the word means basically servant. They are warriors, or bushi. Let’s get that out of the way right here. Click on pictures to see them full-screen!

Scroll detail of three people and two severed heads.

Takezaki Suenaga (in green and brown) at a court hearing, seeking rewards for beheading two members of the invasion force. He brought the heads as proof. Adachi Morimune is the judge, here, in red armor on the left. The guy in black is the secretary: it’s thanks to people like him that we have so many primary sources about this. Historians are practically rolling in receipts for severed heads.

The 13th Century warrior class in Japan was very much a headhunting culture. The military government – bakufu – didn’t prevent violence so much as referee it, and regulate it with lots of paperwork. This scroll is about the Mongolian invasion of Japan, and although there are plenty of scenes of Takezaki Suenaga fighting, a large part of the story is an interlude where he goes to court and insists on being given a replacement horse, since his own horse was killed out from under him in battle. The lifestyle of a bushi was all about fighting, taking heads, and getting rewarded for taking heads.

Takezaki Suenaga on his horse. The horse has been hit by several arrows.

The pivotal scene of the horse being killed by arrows.

The bakufu didn’t just dole out rewards like lollipops, though: you had to prove you earned it. You couldn’t just say you killed an important enemy, you had to bring the head. You couldn’t just bring the head, you had to have witnesses. The witnesses couldn’t be your relatives or friends, either. Preferably, they were third-party eyewitnesses, who didn’t have anything to gain if you won your case.

Interesting, huh? Maybe so interesting that you want to read a translation of the scroll itself? You want in on this HOT CIVIL LAWSUIT HORSE-REPLACEMENT ACTION!!! Too bad the Louisville Free Public Library doesn’t have a copy. (It’s a super-specialist history academic book, and expensive, so buying it isn’t going to be much help.) Never fear, for I will show you how to use your sweet library skillz to get even the most elusive of manga-style academic works. (That’s right, it’s published right to left like a manga, so as not to break up or flip the scroll. Hardcore.)

First, you need to know about the book. The title is In Little Need of Divine Intervention: Takezaki Suenaga’s Scrolls of the Mongol Invasion of Japan ; the translator is Thomas Conlan ; the publication year is 2010. Here’s the ISBN: 978-1-885445-13-1 (ISBN is short for International Standard Book Number – it’s a serial number unique to every edition of a book or book-like publication. Use this to be sure you get the exact book you want, and not something with the same title or whatnot. Convenient!) It’s published by the University of Hawai’i Press. Nifty.

Now, with all your information about the book, you can use this to get YOUR library to borrow a book from ANOTHER library so you can read it. Not only are you not limited to all the books in OUR system, you can also read all the books we don’t have that other libraries are willing to lend out! To use The Awesome Power of Interlibrary Loan, just get all the information about a book you want that we don’t have, go to our website, and click on “services” – there you will find a link for “interlibrary loan” and a webform you can fill out to get our library to borrow a book from another library for you. First, though, be absolutely sure that we don’t already have it. You can use it three times a month. Just promise you will use your power for good, and not for evil. With great power comes great responsibility and all that.

This is all very well and good, but there’s one visual detail that’s right in your face in this picture that says a lot about this headhunting culture, and its values. Look over all the pictures we’ve seen so far. Notice anything about these gentlemen? (Especially, if not exclusively, the gentlemen, actually.)

A warrior in red armor, on a camp stool with a fan.

Shoni Kagesuke, chillin’ on a camp stool. Have a good close look. What you’re looking for is so obvious that you’ll kick yourself, I swear.

Figured it out yet? Here’s a hint! We’re lucky in that the painter of the scroll in these scenes is actually very precise and naturalistic, in terms of details, like accessories, clothes, hairdos, and hats and such. You’re looking for a detail of personal appearance that’s clearly in all the primary sources like this, but almost never reproduced in period piece movies or TV shows, no matter how accurate they’re trying to be. This is your chance to review the pictures, and look for it. It’s not something subtle, or tricky even. Channel the inner four year old.

Select between the brackets to reveal the answer: [ Adachi Morimune in the court scene, Takezaki Suenaga himself on the horse, and Shoni Kagesuke are all wearing (quite a lot of) makeup. Faces don’t match hands, or other people’s natural skin color. You can see it plainly. Go ahead and look again! Stark white base makeup with red lipstick, and in Shoni Kagesuke’s case, he’s also dyed his teeth a fashionable black. It’s not geisha makeup, It was anybody’s high-class makeup, if you were rich and pretty enough to pull it off. Geisha just happen to still wear it. ] Interesting. I can’t tell if we don’t see it in period-piece movies and such because nobody is expecting to see it, so the costume department doesn’t know (I mean, you didn’t until just now, probably), or if it’s omitted because the producers think that the audience will be distracted if half the cast is wearing it, even if they would have, historically. Also, it’s possible to infer that its use is associated with class and rank – only the higher ranked warriors have it, and not all their followers. In addition, Suenaga is shown wearing it in battle, but not the court case, implying that some warriors specifically wore it into battle, even if they didn’t necessarily for other occasions. Maybe so that they looked their best: it would be a shame if somebody killed you and didn’t think you were high-ranking enough to bother cutting off your head. I doubt the Mongolian forces cared about it, but Takezaki Suenaga and his peers sure did.

That’s why looking at actual primary sources is important. No matter how well-researched representations of the past are, they’re filtered through the culture and expectations of their own present. While you can’t remove your own cultural filters, you can look at the primary sources directly, rather than relying on second-hand versions.

Squeeze the Source!

After all those science-y posts, here’s a return to history, with the very first ever Squeeze the Source challenge!

Last time we did history, the topic was the amazing history of high-heeled shoes. You can be a historian too, if you learn how to squeeze information out of sources. Pretty much everything around you, past and present, has a lot to say about who made it and why, even to the point of throwing light on the society and technology of the world they were made in.

Since squeezing sources is a skill, and requires some practice, I’ll show you how it’s done, and then demonstrate with a few sources, before turning you loose on poor, unsuspecting Caravaggio. (Don’t feel bad for him though: his biography reads like a laundry list of every possible crime against public order you could commit in late Renaissance Italy, punctuated by massive amounts of corruption – hey, it was Renaissance Italy, what did you expect? – and artistic brilliance. Besides, he’s been dead for centuries. He won’t mind.)

Cover of the book Caravaggio: a Life Sacred and Profane.

“Troubled Artist” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Getting into constant brawls with street toughs is one of the least ridiculous and drama-filled things in his life. Why, yes, the library has this book. Why do you ask?

How to Squeeze a Source:

  1. You know things too. Don’t forget that.
  2. Unleash your inner four-year-old.
  3. Don’t take anything for granted, or make assumptions.
  4. Ask the blindingly obvious questions.
  5. Answer everything with equally obvious answers.
  6. Follow those obvious answers to their conclusions.
  7. Collect and connect these conclusions to the broader world.

Demonstration: Coconut Cup

A photo of a coconut cup. carved coconut with silver settings.

A Coconut Cup.

What’s this? A coconut cup.

What’s it made of? Coconut shell and silver.

Fancy or Plain? Really fancy. Carved coconut and lots of silver work. Engraved writing. Some serious time investment and skill went into this. Probably specialized artists involved.

So, writing: more about that? In a Latin alphabet, like English, but I can’t read it. Looks like it’s Dutch maybe?

Where was the cup made? Northern Europe.

Any other details? The carving on the coconut shows a woman with scissors, and a sleeping man in her lap, with soldiers standing by. Sampson and Delilah! Clothes look contemporary to the time the cup was made though. I’d guess 1600s ish.

Artists make art because people buy it. Who’s buying fancy coconut cups? Rich people.

What do I know, based on the coconut cup? Northern Europe in the 1600s has specialized carvers and silversmiths – an economy capable of supporting artisans. Coconuts are special and extra fancy to them, for them to bother encrusting one in silver, and going to all that trouble to decorate it. They also got the coconut from somewhere, so they either have trade networks to the tropics, or someone’s very carefully hoarding the precious coconuts that wash up on the beaches. Religion (Sampson and Delilah – they’d have to assume that others would know what the carving is of), wealth, and trade literally on display in this one object. I’m sure if I understood the language, I’d know even more.

And that’s how you squeeze a source. The catch, however, is in the unexpected stuff. I can’t read the language on the cup, and I don’t know why Sampson and Delilah are so important, in this context. I just don’t have enough cultural knowledge of the social world in which this cup belongs.

The most important thing is this: if you get in a plane, and travel to a different place, you find yourself in another culture, and you will be missing some important information to help you understand the world around you. The most fundamental things are up for grabs, as soon as you find yourself operating in a new cultural environment. Here’s the kicker, though: if you had a time machine, and travel to a different time, even if you stay in your own place, you’ll find yourself in a different culture too. There’s things we take for granted that someone from just 100 years ago would find alien. So always go with what the source is telling you, and don’t let your assumptions blind you to what’s right in front of your face.

 

It’s Your Turn!

Cardsharps by Caravaggio. Italian, Circa 1594.

Cardsharps by Caravaggio

Have a good look, ask the questions, and see what you can learn about Caravaggio’s world.

Ask yourself questions like:

What’s going on in this painting? What objects do you see? Anything recognizable? Materials? Behaviors of people? Clothes? What are people doing? What can you tell about each person in the painting? Their interactions? Who would buy this painting? Why? What does this tell you about Caravaggio’s society?

 

Good luck, and happy source squeezing! (By the way, squeezing lots of sources to make some kind of cohesive Ultimate Source Fruit Punch Medley is called historical research. One source is a nifty thing, but lots of sources, all consistent – that’s the basis for a thesis.)

Architecture

Don’t Get People Killed

Everybody likes buildings that don’t collapse. That’s the one thing that absolutely everyone can agree about in architecture. Whether you’re building a land diving platform in Vanuatu, or a scientific research retreat in San Diego, structural integrity is the first priority. This is a long list of the kind of thing that happens when buildings fail.

land diving platform

By Paul Stein from New Jersey, USA (The Tower) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Structural integrity FTW! (Land diving is the ancestor of bungee jumping, and has a good safety record due to smart practices in material choice and design enforced by tradition. Nifty.)

Make Sure the Building Does Its Job

Does the structure do what it was designed to? It’s nice if your building stays up, and looks good, but does it do a good job at what it was designed to do? What if you built an award-winning library, and people found it unpleasant, or even creepy to read in? That’s a problem.

Looks Good

Does your building look good, or at least get across what it’s trying to communicate? Few structures aren’t meant to communicate anything. An example would be a missile silo. The best kind of missile silo is the kind nobody knows is there.

Minuteman Missile Silo Above Ground

This is a Minuteman missile silo doing a very good job of not being noticed.

Missile silo with skylight added.

This is a Minuteman missile silo as a museum feature. With the addition of a skylight, it’s now doing a very good job of being a tourist attraction.

Now THIS is a building meant to communicate something.

Marie Antoinette's cottage

By Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium (Marie-Antoinette’s estate at Versailles, France) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

FANCY. Oh, wait, that’s just the custom-built cottage that Marie Antoinette commissioned for the grounds of the palace at Versailles.

Versailles garden facade.

By Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium (Chateau de Versailles, France) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

There we go. That’s the real palace.

“Fancy” doesn’t quite cut it as a description. Oh Dang.

So… What Happens When Communicating Wealth Goes Wrong?

Your house gets featured on McMansionHell, an excellent blog and all-around resource for information on jaw-droppingly ill-advised buildings, and architectural theory. That’s what happens. For an even further exploration of architecture, there’s also Arch Daily Classics like these. If you really want to beef up on architecture, you can always search the library database of subjects by keyword.

subject keyword search

Keyword search by subject. Yes, this will make your life much easier.

Happy researching!